A mill in Youngstown, Ohio
By Couri Johnson, NEOMFA '15
My mother gave me a Youngstown full of stories. In the passenger side seat of her taxi, in between fares, we would idle throughout the city, and she’d spin tales.
“See that house?” she said, pointing at a grey Victorian with delicate lattice work, a steeple roof to one side, and a sagging porch. “It’s been around since the 1800s, been divided up into apartments now. I lived there during college, and one night a woman in a black shroud passed by my bedroom door. Stopped there to peer at me as I lay in my bed. Even now, being close to it gives me the willies.”
When we weren’t posted up waiting for fares, we’d cruise through Mill Creek Park, where the stories were even more fantastic.
“People call this the Fairy Tale Bridge, but I know it as the Witch’s Bridge. Do you feel that?” she’d ask. “The hairs raising up on the back of your arms? There’s a spirit here,” she’d say. Sometimes the spirit was an angry woman who’d been drowned. Sometimes it was fairies, spirits of the trees, just waiting to play tricks on people, but no matter what the story was about, it raised the hairs on the back of my arms and gave me the willies, just as she intended.
The park and the city seemed polar opposites; one, a lush woodland that seemed to go on for miles and miles where I was allowed to wade barefoot through creeks searching for salamanders, spot deer, and hunt bigfoot; the other a collection of aging buildings and the skeletons of steel mills, rusting memorials to America’s lost industry, haunted by the ghosts of the mill workers, their forgotten families, and even famous mobsters.
Natural beauty and man-made decay, living side by side, united into a single harmony for me by my mother’s tales that blended history with folklore, the mundane with the wonderful. That same strange amalgamation made its way into my writing. Is, in fact, the very reason I began to write. To practice bringing the forest and the city together, the real and the imaginary, the fantasy and the facts, and mixing them into a whole as my mother did.
Youngstown is a city that asks you to do this. That asks you to wonder and to look further. Be it through the repetition of Eddie Loves Debbie that speckle the city’s sign posts, the things that slither and shake in the underbrush of the woods, or the ghosts that linger in once great Victorian homes.
There are stories here, waiting to be unburied. All you have to do is come and look.